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Need help deciding which weights to lift? Read Strength Training 101.

Outfit your basement for weight-lifting with our guide to free weights.

In Shape

Weight Lifting

Weight lifting benefits people in many ways. It builds muscle mass and boosts your metabolism, so you burn more fat, losing weight and inches. Weight training also helps fight osteoporosis—a major health threat for women—by making your bones denser and stronger. Even if you have just a half hour at the gym, you can do a series of exercises that will make you stronger and fitter, experts say. They recommend working on the major muscle groups—legs, chest, back, hamstrings and quadriceps—first, before moving on to smaller muscle groups such as shoulders, biceps and triceps. This strategy will help you get fit faster and give you confidence if you want to zoom in later on a second series of exercises to work muscles in a particular area.

30 Minutes in the Free-Weight Room

Gwen Benson-Lovece, a personal trainer in the Washington, D.C., area, urges her time-stressed female clients to use the free-weight room for a fast, effective workout. In thirty minutes, she said, they could complete two sets of exercises each for the triceps, biceps, chest and back—then work the lower body with two sets each for the hamstrings and quadriceps. Since free weight exercises are often performed standing up, it's a two-for-one deal; you work your "stabilizing" inner-core muscles as you focus on other areas.

Exercises include bicep and tricep curls, chest presses for the upper body and squats and lunges for the lower body. One to two sets of each exercise two to three times a week is enough to achieve results.

Time-strapped exercisers may take comfort in a recent University of Florida study that found that a single set of resistance training involving all the major muscle groups performed three times a week provided nearly the same benefits as workouts that involved three sets of repetitions done three times per week.

Check in with the Doctor

Kurt Murray, who helps certify personal trainers for the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America in Sherman Oaks, Calif., says you should see a physician first especially if you haven't been physically active—before you start any exercise program. Other personal training experts concurred.

When you do begin, get guidance (many gyms offer members a free session or two with a trainer) so you get a workout tailored to your individual goals. Knowing your way around before you begin also keeps you from hurting yourself or someone else on the equipment.

One-Two-Three Punch

As you dream about the body you want, forget the fantasy of spot-training. Doing dozens of sit-ups won't flatten your gut if your abdominal muscles are surrounded by fat. Weight lifting, cardiovascular exercise—such as walking or running—and watching caloric intake must all be combined if you want to tone up and lose weight. "It can't just be one thing or the other," says Murray. To raise your heart rate before your weight workout, try adding 15 minutes of cardiovascular activity on the treadmill or exercise bike, followed by a few minutes of stretching, if possible. Doing this first provides an effective warm-up to your weight-lifting session.

— Mary Agnes Carey


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